Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Cut down all trees

The archaeological concept of culture is largely organismic. This can best be described by Deleuze and Guattari’s famous arborescent (tree-like) schema which certainly is not new to archaeology but its implications for the archaeological concept of culture has not been developed. This is the schema of a hierarchical system centered on a core and an essence. It is transcendent, genealogical, linear and segmented. At the top (or rather at the roots) sits the immutable concept of culture and all individual entities are ordered according to this concept. From the transcendent culture, other elements branches out into the particular artifacts. Difference is added afterwards to each branching element so that it can become a particular of the general. The particular, such as the artifact, is seen as less important than the more general concept of culture. These subordinate elements are unable to move horizontally to connect to other elements. In order to connect they must be connected higher up in the hierarchy, in a more general category. The tree is therefore a closed system that only is the sum of its parts. It is a stable system because the overall concept of culture defines/signifies everything else in the system and it is complete in itself and non-connected to other systems. The arborescent schema creates a signifying regime, a regime of signs that signifies everything within the tree by linking the parts to a determinant master-signifier.

The arborescent structure of archaeological thought

The arborescent structure of archaeological thought

Culture is this master-signifier in the tree of archaeological theory. The culture concept signifies materiality as “material culture,” material objects primarily imbued with human or cultural meaning because they have been in contact with or modified by humans. The archaeological culture is believed to have an origin, a time and place from where everything evolves and branches into segments following a genealogical evolutionary pattern, but the branches are still part of the same transcendent entity assumed to exist beyond the materialities. A culture can also be divided into segments, ranging from social organization to artifacts. These segments are described as relations of interiority since they exist within an organic cultural body. In this view, materialities are also passive in relation to the human and the culture. This is hylomorphism, the idea that matter is only realizing a preexisting transcendent form through external causes. An artifact under production only realizes a preexisting “Mayaness.” Whatever a Maya agent produced materially it would for sure be something belonging to a Maya culture. Deleuze and Guattari show in several cases how this tendency of thought always is confronted with or is circumscribed by other ways of reasoning, but these are often consumed by the logic of the tree.

Roots strangling ruins at Angkor

Roots strangling ruins at Angkor

Thus, the tree(s) puts a heavy burden on the ruins we study. Cut it/them down, liberate the ruins and seek other connections that break the fixed culture-historical schema that for far too long directs most archaeological research.

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